Washington: The Obama administration blocked efforts by government scientists to tell the public just how bad the Gulf oil spill could become and committed other missteps that raised questions about its competence and candour during the crisis, according to a commission appointed by the President to investigate the disaster.
In documents released on Wednesday, the national oil spill commission`s staff describes "not an incidental public relations problem" by the White House in the wake of the April 20 accident.
Among other things, the report says, the administration made erroneous early estimates of the spill`s size, and President Barack Obama`s senior energy adviser went on national TV and mischaracterised a government analysis by saying it showed most of the oil was "gone”. The analysis actually said it could still be there.
"By initially underestimating the amount of oil flow and then, at the end of the summer, appearing to underestimate the amount of oil remaining in the Gulf, the federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem," the report says.
The administration disputed the commission findings, saying senior government officials "were clear with the public what the worst-case flow rate could be”.
In a statement on Wednesday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco and White House budget director Jeffrey Zients pointed out that in early May, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen told the public that the worst-case scenario could be more than 100,000 barrels a day, or 4.2 million gallons.
For the first time, the documents — which are preliminary findings by the panel`s staff — show that the White House was directly involved in controlling the message as it struggled to convey that it, not BP, was in charge of responding to what eventually became the biggest offshore oil spill in US history.
Citing interviews with government officials, the report reveals that in late April or early May, the White House budget office denied a request from NOAA to make public its worst-case estimate of how much oil could spew from the blown-out well. The Unified Command — the government team in charge of the spill response — also was discussing the possibility of making the numbers public, the report says.
The report shows "the political process was in charge and science really does not have the role that was touted," said Christopher D`Elia, dean of environmental studies at Louisiana State University.
The White House budget office has traditionally been a clearinghouse for administration domestic policy. Why exactly the administration didn`t want to emphasise the worst-case scenario is not made clear in the report.
However, Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the budget office had concerns about the reliability of the NOAA estimates.
"The issue was the modelling, the science and the assumptions they were using to come up with their analysis. Not public relations or presentation," he said. "We offered NOAA suggestions of ways to improve their analysis, and they happily accepted it."
Jerry Miller, head of the White House science office`s ocean subcommittee, said in an interview at a St Petersburg, Fla, scientific conference on the oil spill that he didn`t think the budget office censored NOAA.
"I would very much doubt that anyone would put restrictions on NOAA`s ability to articulate factual information," Miller said.
The explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers, spewed 206 million gallons of oil from the damaged oil well, and sank the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
BP`s drilling permit for the well originally estimated the worst-case scenario to be a leak of 6.8 million gallons per day. In late April, just after the spill began, the Coast Guard and NOAA received an updated worst-case estimate of 2.7 million to 4.6 million gallons per day.
While those figures were used as the basis for the government`s response to the spill — they appeared on an internal Coast Guard situation report and on a dry-erase board in NOAA`s Seattle war room — they were never announced to the public, according to the report.
However, they were, in fact, announced, as news stories from May 02 to May 05 show, though the figures received little attention at the time.
For more than a month after the explosion, government officials were telling the public that the well was releasing 210,000 gallons per day. In early August, in its final estimate of the spill`s flow, the government said it was gushing 2.6 million gallons per day — close to the worst-case predictions.